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Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People – Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego

San Francisco Just Got Stranger


New Monstrosities Reflect Digital Age Anxieties — From One of the World’s Most Acclaimed Artists — Exclusively this Fall at the Asian Art Museum

June 9, 2023, San Francisco — Weirdly lovable and lovably weird: the creatures that spring from the imagination of Takashi Murakami — one of the world’s most celebrated living artists — will be making an exclusive appearance at the Asian Art Museum from Sept. 15, 2023 to Feb. 12, 2024. Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego showcases more than 75 works — including a dozen never-before exhibited ones — and delivers Murakami’s signature combination of fun, spectacle, and playful social commentary in his first-ever solo exhibition in the Bay Area.

“Like all great artists, Takashi Murakami is sensitive to cultural shifts and many of these unique artworks were created during — and in response to — the recent pandemic when people around the globe retreated behind their screens and many of our interactions became virtual,” says Jay Xu, The Barbara Bass Bakar Director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum. “I’m delighted that visitors will be able to experience his latest, highly relevant works, which might mirror their own questions about living in the digital age, while drawing connections between this iconic mix-master’s styles and the Asian Art Museum’s own incredible historic collection.”

Organized by the Asian Art Museum’s senior curator of Japanese art, Laura Allen, Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego uses monsters as a lens to examine human behavior in the wake of a complicated past, a chaotic present, and a virtually limitless digital future.

“Cloaked in glossy, kaleidoscopic colors, Takashi Murakami’s monsters are often scary and cute at the same time, with compositions saturated with references to anime and manga as well as imagery — and art styles — scavenged from the past,” says Allen. “This exhibition asks: ‘Why do these creatures matter to him? What do they tell us about his artistic practice?’ Visitors will learn that his monstrous characters draw on a rich well of sources, carefully curated, embellished, and mutated from one work to the next. Bizarre and comical, they serve as serious vehicles for reflecting on prevailing social conditions and his position as a contemporary artist.”

Murakami’s prolific writings also reveal elements of his monsters’ DNA: what Allen identifies as challenges to the hegemonic state of Western culture, commentary on consumerism and desire, and observations on how the virtual world has altered our relationship to art and society.


Exhibition Connects Murakami’s Recent Monsters to Older Demons

According to Murakami, monsters took hold of his psyche at age eight when, on a visit to a museum with his parents, he came face to face with Goya’s terrifying, early 19th-century Saturn Devouring His Son. “The monsters that Goya painted have traumatized me for life. At the same time, I have been fascinated by the specters in Shigeru Mizuki’s manga and the grotesqueness of the monsters in Ultraman, the TV sci-fi series. When I submerge myself in my own primordial feeling and draw spontaneously, what springs forth effortlessly are images of monsters.”

Red Demon and Blue Demon with 48 Arhats, 2013, by Takashi Murakami (Japanese, b. 1962). Acrylic and gold leaf and platinum leaf on canvas mounted on board. Courtesy of the artist and The Heller Group. Photo © Phillips Auctioneers LLC. © 2013 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Several of the new works created for Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego find the artist distorting figures to reflect the swelling egos of individuals promoting themselves relentlessly on social media, while painted works recording the artist’s creation of NFTs — including both his signature happy flowers and Murakami-themed avatars — look with optimism toward a digitally liberated future.

Other recent paintings showcase the artist’s connoisseurship of traditional ceramics, with one large work drawing aquatic motifs from the Asian Art Museum’s own celebrated collection of Ming dynasty wares, and together offering a poignant nod to the passage of time.

A selection of older works from the late 1990s and early 2000s demonstrate Murakami’s longstanding thematic interest in monsters that straddle the intersection of the cosmic, the comic, and the creepy, while also illustrating the artist’s ongoing evolution in style and subject. Visitors will leave with a new appreciation for how even art that makes us uncomfortable can help push back dread. Highlights of the exhibition include:


  • Red Demon and Blue Demon with 48 Arhats (2013). Made with acrylic and gold and platinum leaf on canvas mounted on board, this large-scale work was composed in the aftermath of the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. It combines two massive demons who “glare at the horizon of a chaotic future” with a host of Buddhist arhats, traditional saint-like figures whose bizarre features symbolize advanced spiritual powers and the potential to heal.
  • Bacon: Scream (2019). Made with acrylic and gold and platinum leaf on canvas mounted on an aluminum frame, this example pays homage to Francis Bacon (another artist renowned for his aestheticization of the grotesque) and is an outstanding example of Murakami’s “squeegee work” painting technique, which achieves intricate color patterns, here juxtaposed against a background of precious metal.
  • Unfamiliar People (2020 – 2022). Made with acrylic on canvas mounted on an aluminum frame, this new work (which lends its title to the exhibition) depicts how, in the artist’s words: “After the pandemic started, some people who used to lead normal lives started to hold and loudly voice strong opinions, or turned out to be vaccine conspiracy theorists, or started attacking others out of an astonishingly intense sense of fear. Some who used to seem absolutely kind had abruptly changed, and I felt that it was impossible to understand human beings just by looking at the surface.”
  • A high-spirited Youth Who’s Determined to Get a Job in Finance and Make It (2022). Made with acrylic on canvas mounted on an aluminum frame, this new work similarly expresses the contemporary sense of alienation anchored by materialism that arises from leading a life primarily online or mediated through a digital screen, a rumination on the dangers of becoming “monsterized” by our time spent in virtual realms.
  • CLONE X × TAKASHI MURAKAMI Avatar Hiropon Style (2022). Made from fiberglass-reinforced porcelain with silver mirror plating, this sculpture is an outgrowth of Murakami’s NFT collaboration with digital design and sneaker company RTFKT. Fusing together elements from Murakami’s audacious 1997 Hiropon sculpture with 3-D data for human figures developed by RTFKT for use in online games, it has a reflective silver surface etched with mechanical patterns, suggesting that this Hiropon is a cyborg.

Qinghua: Grass Carp, Chinese Perch, and Lotus Flowers, 2019 – 2023, by Takashi Murakami (Japanese, b. 1962). Acrylic on canvas mounted on aluminum frame. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin. © 2019 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.

  • Qinghua: Grass Carp, Chinese Perch, and Lotus Flowers (2019 – 2023). Made with acrylic on canvas mounted on an aluminum frame, this gallery-spanning, 31-foot-wide painting shimmers with the same iridescence as fish scales, a reflection of Murakami’s ability to find solace in the historic ceramics that inspired it (a different painting, inspired by the Asian Art Museum’s iconic Lidded jar with design of a lotus pond, will be nearby). Watery, translucent, ornamental yet vivid, these works are tied to the past but without the demonic baggage of his monster-themed works.


“Getting an inside view of Takashi’s working process — developing a work from inception to completion through periods of experimentation and sometime crisis — was the thrill of a lifetime,” recalls exhibition curator Laura Allen. “I’ve long admired Murakami’s tongue-in-cheek references to historical artworks and the way he suffuses his work with humor, often self-directed,  in works that expand the canon of contemporary art. Learning more about his practice has led to a greater appreciation of his embrace of recycled imagery, distortion, and sensual curves, and of his eye-popping colors, arresting compositions, and intricate designs, all of which we are so excited to share in this timely exhibition.”


Programs Include Monsterized Parties and Weekly Cosplay

To celebrate the opening of Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego, the Asian Art Museum will be holding two major festivities: the annual Gala and After Party on the evening of Wednesday, September 13, and a ticketed opening party on Thursday, September 21. The After Party is a dressy affair featuring surprise guest DJs and specialty food and beverages. The opening celebration encourages everyone to come as they are — or as monsterized as they fancy! — with dancing, drinks, and ferocious fun.

On Thursday evenings, when the museum has reduced admission rates, Cosplay activities will take place, giving us all a chance to unleash the fan inside…

Check the museum website for details later this summer.


About the Artist

Born in Tokyo in 1962, Takashi Murakami graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts in 1993. In 2000, he proposed “Superflat,” a concept/theory of contemporary visual culture that connects traditional Japanese art with the flatness of anime and manga while also referring to the state of Japanese society. In 2005, Little Boy, the exhibition he curated at the Japan Society, New York, was awarded the Best Thematic Show by AICA-USA. His recent solo exhibitions include An Arrow through History (Gagosian, NY, 2022), Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (The Broad, LA, 2022), MurakamiZombie (Busan Metropolitan Art Museum,
Busan, 2023), and Understanding the New Cognitive Domain (Gagosian, Le Bourget, 2023).


Recent exhibitions include:


  • Solo exhibition Takashi Murakami: Murakami Zombie(Busan Museum of Art, Busan, Korea)
  • Solo exhibition Understanding the New Cognitive Domain(Gagosian, Le Bourget, France).


  • Solo exhibition Takashi Murakami: Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow(The Broad, Los Angeles, USA).
  • Solo exhibition An Arrow through History(Gagosian, New York, USA).


  • Launch of Flowers(NFT).
  • Collaboration with metaverse platform RTFKT.
  • Guest curator of Super-Roughexhibition for Outsider Art Fair (New York, USA).


  • Solo exhibition Michel Majerus Superflat(Michel Majerus Estate, Berlin, Germany).
  • Group exhibition STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World(Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan).


  • Solo exhibition MURAKAMI POR MURAKAMI(Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo, Brazil)
  • Solo exhibition Superflat Doraemon(Galerie Perrotin, Tokyo, Japan)
  • Solo exhibition BAKA(Galerie Perrotin, Paris, France)
  • Solo exhibition From Superflat to Bubblewrap(STPI, Singapore)
  • Solo exhibition TAKASHI MURAKAMI: MURAKAMI VS MURAKAMI(Tai Kwun Contemporary,
  • Hong Kong)
  • Solo exhibition GYATEI2(Gagosian, Los Angeles, USA)
  • Three-person show with Murakami’s brother and father, Rhapsody of a Foolish Family: Fukujuro, Takashi, and Yuji Murakami (Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Tokyo, Japan)


Exhibition Publication

Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego, edited by Laura W. Allen, with contributions by Hiroko Ikegami, Masako Shiba, and Takashi Murakami. 144 pages, 8 x 12 in., 120 color illustrations and 4 gatefolds, hardcover, ISBN 9780300273182, September 19, 2023, $45.00. Published by Yale University Press in association with the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.


Exhibition Organization

Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego is organized by the Asian Art Museum. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of Kenneth C. Griffin and The Bernard Osher Foundation. Additional support is provided by Neiman Marcus, Sakana Foundation, and the W.L.S. Spencer Foundation.  

Sustained support generously provided by the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Endowment Fund for Exhibitions and the Kao/Williams Contemporary Art Exhibitions Fund. 


About the Asian Art Museum

Located in the heart of San Francisco, the museum is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art, with more than 20,000 awe-inspiring artworks ranging from ancient jades and ceramics to contemporary video installations. Dynamic special exhibitions, cultural celebrations and public programs for all ages provide rich art experiences that unlock the past and spark questions about the future.


Lead Image: Unfamiliar People, 2020–2022, by Takashi Murakami (Japanese, b. 1962). Acrylic on canvas mounted on aluminum frame. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin. © 2020–2022 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.